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Consensus and Conflict Theory in Society

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 1909 words Published: 6th Jul 2018

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Marxism and Functionalism can certainly be defined as classical sociology and both have had a significant impact upon contemporary understanding of culture. Neither perspective is the preserve of a sole theorist. They are multifaceted and extensive in scope. Thus, due to the limits of this study, this essay shall concentrate on but a few of the theoretical points, namely consensus and conflict because, as I hope to prove, these provide and incredibly useful framework for the analysis of contemporary culture

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In Leviathan Thomas Hobbes notes that man in the state of nature is inexorably engaged in a war of all against all. Reason dictates that one’s life is, “Solitary, poor, nasty brutish and short,” (Hobbes in Parsons p90) where man’s interests conflict so greatly. How humanity solved this problem of conflict of interest, the creation of society, was the study of Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist who first developed the Functionalist perspective.

“In his (Durkheim’s) criticism of the utilitarian (Hobbes) conception of contractual relations……he insists that a vital part is played by a system of binding rules embodied in the institution of a contract.” (Parsons p376)

The functionalist perspective was further advanced by Talcott Parsons. “The concept of order is located predominantly at the level of the social system itself and the cultural system becomes a mechanism of the functioning of the social system.” (Savage p146) The normative order, for Parsons, is the key ingredient that retains social order in society. Norms, which can be regarded as moral standards, regulate action and interaction. Norms are coercive, to break them invites sanctions from social estrangement to capital correction and punishment. Individuals are forced to cooperate and act in predictable ways, or face the consequences. Norms are external to individuals, laws and the like, but also internalised through socialisation, children’s schooling being a very important normative learning area. The normative order, that produces acquiescence in individuals to the order, Is the staple of Parson’s consensus theory. “Society therefore is a self equilibrating system: order is always maintained without major changes in society. In the end, the system functions.” (Jorgenson p285)

A perfect example of how the system functions is Durkheim’s concept of Anomie in his study of suicide. Anomie is, “precisely the state of disorganisation where the holds of norms over individual conduct has broken down.” (Parsons p377) A possible outcome of this kind of break down is suicide. Norms so permeate society that personal equilibrium, individual’s thoughts and actions, is permeated too, as governed by norms as social interaction and law.

“A persons will is constrained by the application of sanctions.” (Parsons p379) If an individual breaks one of the norms of society, then society will sanction them to discourage other such deviant behaviour through the threat of punishment. In the case of Durkheim’s suicide study, the sanction imposed when an individual commits suicide is the social stigma that then attaches itself to their family accompanied by the threat, in Christian countries for instance, of religious punishment – burning in hell.

In Erving Goffman‘s view of society, “The key factor is the maintenance of a single definition of the situation, this definition having to be expressed, and this expression sustained in the face of a multitude of potential disruption.” (Goffman p246) For Goffman actors meet on the field of interaction under a metaphorical flag of truce, working together to attempt the smoothest possible interaction with the best possible outcome for both sides.

“The maintenance of this surface of agreement, this veneer of consensus, is facilitated by each participant concealing his own wants behind statements which assert values to which everyone present feels obliged to give lip service.” (Goffman p20-21) The definition of a given situation may well only be a veneer, a pretence, lies may be suspected even known but, as long as they are not revealed, then definition of the situation is maintained. Goffman’s language, the use of the word consensus, shows his theoretical links to the Functionalist perspective, in particular Parson’s consensus theory. The reason that lies may not be exposed is because it would be against a societal norm to do so. Thus norms regulate interaction providing a consensus. For Goffman the individual acts in different roles that are governed by norms, suppressing and sacrificing certain drives, needs or wants in order to maintain the definition of the situation, to maintain the consensus. As the definition of the situation allows individual acts of interaction to maintain cohesion and momentum, so the normative order governs those definitions, allowing the juggernaut of society to roll ever on.

This classical thread, from Durkheim to Goffman via Parsons is incredibly important for the understanding of contemporary culture. That there is a normative order and how it regulates human action is critical for any understanding of society. The minitatude of Goffman’s analysis, explaining the exigencies of social interaction, the tiny details, has proved both popular and crucial in contemporary sociology.

The Marxist tradition, starting with Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, has many issues with the functionalist consensus view of society. “The state is by no means a power imposed on society from without; just as little is it ‘the reality of the moral idea,’ ‘the image and the reality of reason.’” (Engels in Hechter p180) The Marxist tradition has many issues with what it considers a utopian explanation of power in social order. The state, the embodiment and, in many cases producer, of societal norms is felt to be the inevitable consequence of a society ripe with irreconcilable antagonisms largely manifesting in class conflict. “A power, apparently standing above society, has become necessary to moderate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’.” (Engels in Hechter p180) This power, this normative order of the state is alienating and another tool for the ruling class to maintain its position of dominance over the working classes. As with most Marxist theory, the power that maintains social order is not fostering cooperation but coercion. We have already seen that punitive punishment is meted out to norm breakers. Where Parsons sees this as a tool for society to remain cohesive and function relatively smoothly, Engels sees a repressive state apparatus designed to keep the proletariat in its place through sanctions.

Where Functionalism describes consensus, Marxism defines conflict, class conflict. The normative order is ideology in all the very worst senses of the word. “A dominant power may legitimate itself by promoting beliefs and values congenial to it; naturalising and universalising such beliefs so as to render them self-evident and apparently inevitable.” (Easthope p5-6) Appearing as truth, immovable, certain, ideology controls the class conflict always in favour of the ruling class, the bourgeoisie. The most pertinent criticism of Functionalist theory by Marxism is that it explains the inequalities of the system as functional. That the proletariat are poor is for the good of the system, the society. Marxism refuses to accept this. The system is unfair and unequal because those in charge, through ideology, keep in that way, protecting their interests. “Children also learn the rules of good behaviour, i.e. the attitude that should be observed by every agent in the division of labour, according to the job he is ‘destined for’: rules of morality, civic and professional conscience, which actually means rules of respect for the socio-technical division of labour and ultimately the rules of order established by class domination.” (Althusser p127)

The Marxist tradition, and in particular the concepts of ideology, are hugely important to contemporary Feminist understandings of society. “The univocity of sex, the internal coherence of gender, and the binary framework for both sex and gender are considered throughout as regulatory fictions that consolidate and naturalise convergent power regimes of masculine and heterosexual oppression.” (Butler p44) The pervasive and domineering regimes in Marxism and Feminism are, essentially, controlled by the same – rich and powerful men. The importance of feminist sociology in contemporary society is its understanding of, and explanation for, the universality of female subjugation. It is considered not enough that women are dominated by men because it is functional, for the best of the system. It is illogical to conclude, as the functionalist tradition can be accused, of assuming that it is functional to effectively marginalise the contribution of one half of the population of mankind. Just as it is illogical to assume that it is functional to marginalise the proletariat, who constitute a majority of humanity. The Marxist tradition, and the feminist, emphasise the conflict in society, along gender and class lines, and demand sociological attention be paid. Moreover they identify the place where much of this conflict occurs, the ideological order, the self same normative order that the functionalist tradition regards so highly. No sociological study of contemporary society would be worth attempting without some attempt to explain gender, class and other inequalities beyond the assumption that they are ‘for the best,’ of the system.

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In conclusion society continues. Always has and always will till humanity is extinguished. In no way could society continue without some form of consensus, some shared values or norms. To be without such rules we would exist in the state of nature, in anarchy and thus we would not exist for very long. Yet within those rules there is great scope for conflict. Functionalism, in its more ‘pure’ form of Durkheim and Parsons, and in the more unique observations of Goffman, help explain that consensus that is so essential to avoid anarchy. Marxism, the pure of Marx and Engels, the adaptation of Feminism, show how that consensus becomes corrupted and a tool for one section of society to dominate another. Society continues. With conflict and consensus. Contemporary society can not be understood without appreciating why and how conflict and consensus occur. Functionalism and Marxism both illuminate those aspects, both show how society continues.


Althusser, Louis, 1971. For Lenin Western printing services Ltd.

Butler, Judith, 1999. Gender trouble. Routledge

Easthope, Antony, 1991. Literary into cultural studies. Routledge

Goffman, E, 1990. The presentation of the self in everyday life. Penguin

Michael Hechter Theories of social order published by Stanford University press 2003

Nik Jorgenson Sociology an interactive approach Harper Collins 1997

Parsons, Talcott, 1937 The structure of social action. Free press.

Stephen Savage The theories of Talcott parsons pub by Macmillan 1981


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